Reading Romanian Literature

I have already mentioned the stash of books I brought back with me from my trip to Romania earlier this month. I also had a bit more time to read, being on holiday (although, naturally, I did spend a lot of time sorting out paperwork and chatting with my parents, which were the two main reasons for going there). So I also raided my father’s bookshelves. He is as great a reader and book collector as me, although he tends to prefer non-fiction, political biographies and history. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that I’ve managed to read ten Romanian books already this month – with more than a third of the month still to go. Since none of them have been translated into English, I will review them briefly here.

Martha Bibescu

Martha Bibescu: Berlin Journal 1938 and War Journal 1939-1941

Princess Martha Bibescu (aka Marthe Bibesco in France) was born in 1886 in a noble family in Romania (Lahovary) and married into another noble, even princely, family (Bibescu). She spoke several languages fluently and knew everyone who was anyone across most of Europe during the early part of the 20th century. She was also a popular writer, a prolific diarist and a cultural and political hostess, often engaging in ‘soft diplomacy’ with those in power.

These two diaries are fascinating for their insights into the political climate of the time. I expected Martha Bibescu to be the typical spoilt socialite complaining about declining service and the lack of respect of the working classes, but she comes across as remarkably empathetic and clear-eyed. Despite her obvious privileges, wealth, many love affairs, she was a shrewd judge of character, especially of politicians and their duplicity. She was a personal friend of Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany and in her Berlin journal, she describes the delusional hope that he and his wife harboured about every becoming essential to German life again. She also met Hermann Göring during that trip, but never succumbed to the Fascist temptation: on the contrary, she describes a handsome young officer in SS uniform as the ‘bait to reel them [Western powers] in’.

She was also profoundly loyal to Romania, although not necessarily to the constantly changing governments of the time and rapid switches in alliances. She was fully aware of the challenges of being a small country surrounded by great empires and I couldn’t help but admire her analytical abilities, how she cut through the bullshit to get to the core of problems. She was a great admirer of British diplomacy and level-headedness, although she had been brought up in a Francophile culture, and sent her grandson to be educated in England, believing that would be the most influential culture in the future.

Lavinia Braniște: Sonia ridică mâna (Sonia Raises Her Hand) and Mă găsești când vrei (You Know Where to Find Me)

Braniște is the epitome of the millennial generation in Romania, I feel, and the three novels she has written to date are excellent at describing the daily grind of life in contemporary Romania from the perspective of a young woman, well-educated but somewhat drifting between jobs, relationships and family, struggling to find a sense of purpose in a society which is still quite prescriptive about what your goals and direction should be. Both of these novels are somewhat similar in style to her first one (the one I am trying to shop around at various publishers), but address different topics: in the first, Sonia is confronting the recent Communist past and how it lives on in the memories of her parents’ and grandparents’ generations; in the second, she explores issues such as domestic violence, force control and lack of self-esteem. Both are topics that are often brushed under the carpet in Romania.

Mihail Sebastian: Ultima oră (Breaking News) and Insula (The Island)

Sadly, Mihail Sebastian only wrote four plays, of which only the first two are frequently performed. These are his two lesser-known ones: Breaking News is a frankly barely believable farce about a mix-up in a printing press. The historical research paper of a university professor accidentally gets published in the local paper, full of misprints, causing mayhem when an oligarch and his pet MPs and ministers believe that it is written in code, threatening to reveal some of their nefarious corrupt or even illegal deeds. Some might describe the comedy as heavy-handed, but the absurdity of censorship reminded me of Communist times (no wonder this was not performed much back then), while the lengths to which politicians are prepared to lie and obfuscate… well, quite frankly, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched anymore.

The final play, The Island, was never finished – only two acts out of the planned three exist. It was nevertheless performed posthumously in 1947 with an ending by Sebastian’s friend Mircea Ștefănescu, but I only read it in its original state. As if to emphasise the universality of his themes, Sebastian has set this play in an unspecified country (possibly in Latin America), prone to revolution or civil war. Three travellers, Boby, a football player, Nadia, a young painter, and Manuel, a wealthy businessman, are all stuck in the country when an unspecified major war-like event breaks out. There are no ships or trains to take them out of there, banks are frozen, so they have to find some cheap accommodation and sell off their possessions in order to survive. They are so hungry that they eat a pack of aspirins that they manage to find somewhere. Although there is some witty banter, this feels much less like a comedy and more like a serious drama about the plight of refugees – which is understandable, since it was written in 1943-44, when the outcome of the war in Europe was still far from certain. As a Romanian Jew, I have no doubt that Sebastian was both more aware of and more sympathetic to the refugee stories they must have been hearing at the time.

Tony Mott: Toamna se numără cadavrele (Autumn Is the Dead Season) and Bogdan Teodorescu: Băieţi aproape buni (Nearly Good Guys) and Teodora Matei: Himere (Illusions)

I reread the first two and read the third one so I could write an application for a translation grant for Corylus Books. Fingers crossed we get some funding this time, as I think they would both appeal to an English-speaking audience. Tony Mott’s book is set in beautiful Brasov and features an indomitable, fast-talking, no-nonsense female forensic scientist, while Teodorescu’s is a more experimental novel depicting politics and social issues in recent Romanian history, under the guise of a juicy bit of police investigation. Teodora Matei’s book continues with a slightly more light-hearted entry in the police procedural series featuring the older, slightly jaded chief inspector Iordan and his young, charismatic sidekick Matache, investigating an apparently unrelated series of killings of family men all over the country.

Alina Nelega

Alina Nelega: Ca și cum nimic nu s-ar fi întâmplat (As If Nothing Happened)

At first glance, a story like thousands of others, about growing up during the 1980s in Romania, but the author is a playwright and theatre director, and it shows in the phenomenally fluid way she slips into other people’s voice and stories. The main character here is Cristina, who has to come to terms with her own sexuality as a lesbian, which was completely illegal in Ceauşescu’s Romania and punishable with jail, but there are many other experiences we hear too, in an indirect but extremely lively speech, as if we are following someone filming a speeded up documentary of tragicomic scenes. Although both the author and her main protagonist are roughly a decade older than me, there were so many descriptions of situations, people and places that I could relate to and made me laugh or wince out loud in recognition.

One unforgettable vignette is when Cristina, who lives in a small town in the north of the country, attempts to go to the seaside with her small son and her friend Nana. As they reach Bucharest on the train, she realises she forgot to take the rubbish out and that her house might be full of cockroaches when she gets back from holidays. She can’t phone her friends to take out the rubbish, because most of them don’t have a phone or else aren’t close enough to borrow a set of keys off someone and empty her bin. She can’t go back to do it herself, as the train connections are horrible and it would take her forever. So she decides it would be best to send a telegram from the Central Post and Telephone Office in Bucharest (the only place from which you could send telegrams at the time), but the girl at the counter becomes suspicious that Cristina’s laconic text ‘Please throw rubbish’ could be a code for something political, so she refuses to send it.

I hope this gives you an idea of the great variety of books being published in Romania today – and hopefully at least a couple of them will get translated into English (they seem to be doing better with French or German translations).

#6Degrees for September 2020: From Rodham to…

Another month, another Six Degrees of Separation link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. This month the starting point is Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld, an alternative history of Hillary Clinton, a book that I haven’t read and have no intention of reading.

I’m not a huge fan of fictional biographies (even ‘alternative’ ones), but one book that I do have on my shelves and am thinking of reading is The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It’s the story of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, and the early years of his writing career and his Paris lifestyle. I don’t have a very high opinion of Hemingway as a man and husband, so this book is likely to reinforce this view.

It might be an obvious link, but my next choice of book is one set in Paris, namely Paris Nocturne by Patrick Modiano. Modiano is a fine writer, although his low-key, unshowy prose often translates as rather flat in English, but he was a bit of a surprise Nobel Prize winner. I find he does tend to address the same themes over and over again, which can get wearisome. However, this is one of his best, most slippery and mysterious books about accidents, mistakes and unreliable memories, with the streets of Paris coming to melancholy life here.

From one Nobel Prize winner to a wannabe one. According to Mircea Cartarescu’s Journal (III – aka Zen), which I read a few years back, he is disappointed every year that he hasn’t won it. Maybe it will be his year this year? This is a very personal and surprisingly candid diary, and this third volume (from 2004-2010) deals with suffering from writer’s block, going on a lot of writing retreats, keeping his family at arm’s length and learning to live with fame and freedom. I love some of his work, but this diary is a little bit too much like Karl Ove Knausgård for me.

Which brings me to the next obvious link, Knausgård himself. I only read three of the Norwegian writer’s six volume memoir and my favourite was Part 2, A Man in Love, which is more than a little self-indulgent (a man in love with himself?) but entertaining to see a man struggling to combine parenthood with writing, for once.

But enough of male writers drunk on their own ego, let’s look at a woman writer who was a star in her own time, namely Fanny Burney and her first novel Evelina was written in secret and published anonymously, because her father did not approve of her scribbles. She had a wicked satirical pen and cynical view of high society (perhaps informed by her stint as a lady-in-waiting at the Royal Court). She is also famous for her diaries, which she kept over a period of no less than 72 years – and she was probably the first person to describe a mastectomy performed on her without anaesthetic.

Although she didn’t write about mastectomies, Virginia Woolf’s Diaries do tell us about her fear of succumbing to her mental illness once more, and how much of an effort it was for her to socialise and be creative at times. Nevertheless, it also give us an entertaining insight into the gossip of the Bloomsbury Group, as well as her thoughts about her reading and the seedlings of ideas from which her novels grew.

Not that much travel this month – only Paris, Romania, Norway and England. But where will your links take you?

 

 

#WITMonth: Marina Tsvetaeva

Marina Tsvetaeva: Earthly Signs Moscow Diaries 1917-22, edited and translated by Jamey Gambrell.

It has just occurred to me that for someone who likes to read and write poetry so much, I should have read more poetry by women in translation this month (which would have been easier than novels too, and would have allowed me to feature more women). Ah, well, as they say in Romania – give the Romanian the mind in retrospect!

Tsvetaeva in 1917.

So let me try to make up for it a tiny bit by reviewing a poet’s diaries. Marina Tsvetaeva is often described as the most Russian of poets, even though she claimed her first language was German and it was German poetry she turned to most for inspiration. She was certainly one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th century, and her life was full of political and personal drama, culminating in her suicide at the age of 48 during the Second World War, when practically her entire family was taken into labour camps by the Soviets. Here is a fragment from one of my favourite poems by her; entitled ‘Homesickness’, it encapsulates the feeling of loss, betrayal, anger of a writer in exile:

And I won’t be seduced by the thought of
my native language, its milky call.
How can it matter in what tongue I
am misunderstood by whoever I meet

(or by what readers, swallowing
newspring, squeezing for gossip?)
They all belong to the twentieth
century, and I am before time

stunned, like a long left
behind from an avenue of trees.
People are all the same to me, everything
is the same, and it may be the most

indifferent of all are these
signs and tokens which once were
native but the dates have been
rubbed out: the soul was born somewhere.

For my country has taken so little care
of me that even the sharpest spy could
go over my whole spirit and would
detect no native stain there.

Houses are alien, churches are empty
everything is the same:
But if by the side of the path one
particular bush rises
the rowanberry…

Moscow in 1917.

However, in these diaries of 1917-22, she is still in the country that will disenchant her and she comes across a very strong, resilient person and artist, who manages to keep her brain working and her pen flowing even when faced with revolution (she was from a wealthy family and lost everything), civil war (her side lost), her husband missing in war for three years, mind-numbing job, starvation (her younger daughter died of malnutrition) and a hostile environment around her. She makes me feel like a snowflake for ever complaining about hardship or not having time to create:

The brilliant advice of S. (the son of an artist). At some point during the winter, I complained (laughing, of course!) that I had absolutely no time to write. ‘I work till five, then there is the fire to light, then the wash, then bathing, then putting the children to bed.’

‘Write at night!’

In this there was: disdain for my body, trust of my spirit, a high mercilessness, which honored both S. and me.

The highest tribute of an artist  – to an artist.

She is almost comically inept in all practical matters, too outspoken for her own good, soldiering on, fierce, indomitable, at times desperate, but also abrasive and satirical. Her description of  her rival (although she would not deign to regard him as such), the Symbolist poet Valery Bryusov, for instance, in the section A Hero of Labor is utterly, delightfully wicked. She mocks his introduction to a poetry reading by nine women poets that he has organised:

Woman. Love. Passion. Woman, from the beginning of time, has known how to sing only of love and passion. The only passion of woman – is love. Every love of a woman – is passion. Outside of love, woman – in creative work, is nothing. Take passion away from woman… Woman… Love… Passion…

Typical communal flat kitchen in Soviet Russia, taken from Expatica website.

She describes sordid details of everyday life, almost too painful to contemplate, but also manages to rise above them with witty, acerbic observations:

There are almost no men: in the Revolution, as always, the weight of everyday life falls on women: previously in sheaves, now in sacks. (Everyday life is a sack: with holes. And you carry it anyway.)

Another young Marina Tsvetaeva picture, from Odessa Review.

She has no illusions about Communism although she doesn’t seem to have too much nostalgia about the past either. She may regret losing her old home, but on the whole:

The difference between the old and new orders:

The old order: ‘A soldier came by… We made pancakes… Our grandmother died.’

Soldiers still come, grandmothers die, only no one makes pancakes anymore.

I have long regretted that I am only able to read this poet in translation (I’d have learnt Russian for her and Dostoevsky alone), for most translators agree her voice is very difficult to capture. Yet Joseph Brodsky also has this interesting observation about her:

Tsvetaeva’s voice had the sound of something unfamiliar and frightening to the Russian ear: the unacceptability of the world. It was not the reaction of a revolutionary or a progressive demanding changes for the better, nor was it the conservatism or snobbery of an aristocrat who remembers better days. On the level of content, it was a question of the tragedy of existence in general, par excellence, outside a temporal context.

These diaries are such a wonderful insight into the mind and tormented life of a fascinating and controversial poet (I keep wondering if people would have been more lenient with her if she had been a tormented genius of a man). I filled them with pagemarkers and post-its, and will be returning to them again and again.

 

A lifetime condensed in a novel?

WearenotourselvesI recently read the ambitious debut novel ‘We Are Not Ourselves’ by Matthew Thomas. Ostensibly the story of a marriage and how it changes when the husband starts suffering from dementia, it is in fact nothing less than a portrayal of the American Dream after World War Two. So it’s the story of second-generation immigrants in the latter half of the twentieth century in the United States, but also a family story, seen largely through the eyes of Eileen Tumulty, who marries scientist Ed Leary. But it’s about the whole context as well: the need to believe in the perfect family and home, the birth of consumer society and economic prosperity, the wish to rise above one’s station. It’s also about mortality, frailty, parents and children, dreams and how we don’t quite make them work for us, about everything under the sun. So, while I admire the author’s ambition, this is perhaps the flaw of the novel: it tries to tell too much, but is nevertheless beautifully written and with some truly touching moments.

I’m not normally a fan of sweeping family sagas, but this one is so tightly bound to a single point of view (Eileen’s), that there is no sense here of too many characters insufficiently connected, some of which you couldn’t care less about. The second point of view, that of Connell their son, comes to the forefront only in the last quarter or so of the book. There is a lot of summarising and skipping of years, a lot of trivia and minutiae, which were fine until I realised that after reading pretty solidly for several days, I had only reached the 30% or so mark of the book. It is a long book, and could perhaps have benefitted from some editing –  it does drag on a bit. There are perhaps a few too many instances and examples, and they get more and more gruelling as the husband’s condition deteriorates. But there are also moments of such insight and beauty, such sharp observation, where the characters really come alive with all their pain and hopes and disappointments laid bare. It’s worth wading through all the rest for these moments (and they are by no means rare). It doesn’t surprise me to discover that the author spent ten years writing, rewriting, refining this novel, and it is remarkably mature for a debut novel.

PrivatelifeIt got me wondering, however, what other books are of similar epic proportion, and have the ambition of ‘telling the story of a nation or a generation via the story of an individual’. And what came to mind was ‘Private Life’ by Jane Smiley. Margaret Mayfield is practically an old maid at the age of 27 in the last decade of the 19th century, so she considers herself lucky to make the ‘catch’ of Captain Andrew Early, naval officer and astronomer, the most famous man in their small Missouri town. They marry and she follows him to his observatory on the naval base just outside San Francisco. But her life turns out to be one long disappointment.

Interestingly enough, this book is not just about the ‘private’ life: it refers consistently to external events – the great earthquake in San Francisco, the First World War, Pearl Harbour, internment of Japanese Americans in camps during the Second World War etc. It also talks about a scientist husband with very strong opinions and a lack of empathy. However, the resilience of the couple in ‘We Are Not Ourselves’ stems from love and respect (however different it may be from the ideal of romantic love), while in ‘Private Life’ it seems to be more about a sense of duty and having no other choices. Of course, it’s a different time period: Margaret could be Eileen’s grandmother. Divorce initiated by women was highly unusual in those days (and we have the cautionary tale of a member of their knitting circle who does get a divorce and ‘disappears from view’).

From archives.gov.on.ca
From archives.gov.on.ca

What struck me in both books is just how tedious the minutiae of daily life is to all but those living it. I don’t think I have a particularly short attention span, and sure enough there are moments of universality (perhaps the contrast is all the sharper because of the endless piling on of small details), but is it really necessary? Could we have some judicious editing, please? Strangely enough, I love reading diaries (Pepys, Evelyn, Virginia Woolf), but diaries are not novels. Any pattern or shape emerges accidentally in diaries, but I like my novels to have form and coherence. I don’t want them to depict the trivia of everyday life, but rise above that.